An ode to the struggling (ex) sportsman

by James Holbeck

This piece was written in order to remember many former players who struggle with the start of a new season. It was mostly constructed before the devastatingly sad news of Daniel Vickerman.

I’ve chosen not to include Dan here in the name of sensitivity but reiterate that everyone from the whole rugby world mourns his loss.

Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends. Please, if you are struggling seek the help you need.

You close your eyes at night but there’s nothing to see anymore.

Where vivid imaginings once waited like a spring ready to explode into colourful scenes of the next battle there is staleness, darkness and silence.

The squirming spasms of future visualized moments are no longer.

Even the foolhardy nightly flashes considering a miraculous comeback, breaking the shackles of physical reality, have almost ceased. In your mind the moments of what is to come have already been and gone. 

Yet there is hope!

The only dream of glory your sub-consciousness can muster is the recurrent one where you are called unprepared from the crowd into the sporting contest.

Freud would reveal this symbolically reveals that you feel naked and ill equipped for life itself.

Who are you? That’s a question you ask of yourself when stripped naked of your sporting identity.

You are now a retired sportsperson. Someone defined by what they once did or for some, what never really happened. You are a once was or a never was. Yet there is a way forward!

Despite the hopelessness that you feel surrounds you there are ways to break the binds of who you have seemingly become.

It starts with an understanding of how you may have got here and why it is so damn hard to admit what is going on for you.

It can be complicated but you must first admit there is a struggle because when you do there is an opening to a path!

Owen Slot, a reporter for The Times wrote on rugby retirement and provided this insight …“Probably millions of us grew up wanting to be a professional athlete. I am not sure, however, how many would want to quit being one.”

The challenge is that for many sportspeople, they don’t know who they are outside of their sporting identity. The blur between illusion and reality is increased within the chaos of this transition. 
A pronounced challenge at the end of a sporting career or sometimes even within a career marked by injury is that you can physically no longer do what you once did.

If your life is defined by your ability to hit someone hard or evade the person trying to hit you really hard there comes a point where in your own eyes you are not the person you once were.

Where your identity is built on the belief that you are someone who can do whatever you put your mind to or in blasting through every roadblock, you come to a place in life where that understanding of yourself just no longer makes any sense. It doesn’t hold true. What you thought you knew about yourself is a myth.

This is an important but difficult lesson where life is much like a dance.

Sometimes we feel like we’re leading and suddenly we are spun around into the reality that ultimately at times life is very much in control. When you first come to realise this you can feel a sense of powerlessness and also a sense of weakness in even feeling that way.

Control over your external environment is something that made you who you are. You come to understand that there are times where you can only control your response to the hand that life has dealt you. That seems so unfair and cruel.

If you have grown to believe that speaking of struggles or even having to struggle itself is a weakness then you may well feel trapped.

You will not do the very thing that will help your recovery because that would be to bow down to weakness.

But could your belief be wrong? What if seeking help is actually strength?

If you had an injured shoulder would you not seek the best treatment you could find?

Would not avoiding help be avoiding the very thing you must do and in a way be denying reality?
English rugby legend, Johnny Wilkinson, last year spoke of his retirement struggle and how the inflexibility of his beliefs, which worked as a young player, then started working against him.

The rigidity of some perfectionists is in doing whatever it takes to get the job done. No excuses!

The rigidity of some men is that they can never show weakness. No compromise!

Although those creeds work well for a while in sporting environments they don’t translate well to family life or the world of pushing papers in an office job, particularly when you feel like you are starting as a nobody.

A further challenge is described in a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald… “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”.

If sport has been a way in which to cope, driven by a compulsion to do whatever it takes to avoid dealing with past trauma and rejection or satisfy some other inner conflict then these terrors have been waiting patiently, crouching ready at the door of retirement.

Dealing with these things takes speaking with a professional and although that person may be just one phone call it can seem some invisible force is holding you back. Use a moment of clarity to make that call.

We are grieving both the loss of a part of our lives that defined us and also unfulfilled dreams that now can never happen. We can try to silence this grief by finding new accomplishments to make us feel ok or numbing the pain through alcohol, drugs and new relationships.
Some however, do find healthy means of dealing with these challenges and at least create some meaning from their rugby career’s end.

Some partake in a type of pilgrimage by pushing their body in new ways for a charity or cause, things greater than and outside of themselves.

They outwork the pain of their grief into constructive and purposeful endeavours.

Others have grounded themselves in a new identity based on more enduring qualities such as character, virtue or values.

They have developed a more realistic and flexible understanding of themselves and their role in the dance that life invites us to share.

In this time you are not alone. We want the best for you. Please seek help. There is always a way forward. There is always hope.

If you, or anybody you know, needs help please contact Lifeline (13 11 14) or Beyond Blue (1300 224 636). Current and former players, and their families, can reach out to RUPA and access our Player Development Program for assistance at any time.

James Holbeck is a former Brumbies and Wallabies centre with an Honours in Psychology. James has since earned a reputation as an insightful mentor & coach at Hope Beckons.